A Martyr by Any Other Name: Blessed William Ward

Pope Pius XI beatified William Ward among 162 Martyrs of England and Wales in 1929. Blessed William Ward, pray for us!

The stone commemorating the Tyburn site on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road and Marble Arch in London.
The stone commemorating the Tyburn site on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road and Marble Arch in London. (photo: Register Files)

Blessed William Ward was hanged, drawn, and quartered in London at Tyburn on the Feast of St. Anne, July 26, 1641, when he was 81 years old. He had journeyed far from Westmorland in northwest England, where another English martyr was born, St. John Boste (one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales canonized in 1970). He labored for a long time as a missionary priest in England. He offers us an example of a late vocation to the priesthood and perseverance in his mission in spite of many difficulties.     

He was born around 1560 as William Webster, was raised an Anglican and became a teacher. He went to Spain with a Catholic friend and came back a Catholic. Webster even convinced his mother to become a Catholic; thus they committed felonies according to Elizabethan statutes: he by influencing her; she by being influenced. As a Catholic layman, Webster did not attend Church of England services as required by Elizabethan statutes, so he was often fined and imprisoned.


A Late Vocation

When he was in his forties, Webster left England again to study for the priesthood in Douai, arriving at the seminary on September 18, 1604. He was ordained on June 1, 1608 and adopted an alias, William Ward. Father William Ward sailed for England on October 14 that year but landed in Scotland instead. He was arrested and imprisoned there for three years.

James VI of Scotland had succeeded Elizabeth I, uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England under his rule. Although he had not delivered the tolerance Catholics expected as James I of England—which precipitated the disastrous Gunpowder Plot in 1605—because he wanted peace with Spain, his regime did not enforce the Elizabethan recusancy laws consistently or strictly. King James I did not want the Church of England to compel conformity by execution, although he was certainly willing to levy fines and seize holdings of those who refused to attend Church of England services. Except for one early deviation, no laymen or women were martyred for aiding priests as had been common during Elizabeth I’s reign. Several Catholic priests during his reign endured arrest, imprisonment, and banishment instead of execution.

According to Bishop Challoner’s 18th century collection of Memoirs of Missionary Priests, which quotes a long letter from one of the Catholics Father Ward ministered to, that’s what happened during Ward’s 30-plus years of service. That anonymous Catholic notes that Father Ward “was zealous [with a] fiery temperament, severe with himself and others, and especially devoted to hearing confessions. Though he had the reputation of being a very exacting director his earnestness” drew penitents to him. The letter Challoner cites isn’t specific, but notes that Father Ward endured imprisonment and banishment several times during the reigns of James I and his son Charles I, as periods of tolerance ebbed and flowed.


The Last Arrest

One aspect of Charles I’s conflict with Parliament was the Puritans and others thought he was too lenient with Catholics. He had married a Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, and she brought with her Capuchin priests as her chaplains; Catholic Mass was celebrated in the chapel at the Court of St. James. Henrietta Maria prayed at Tyburn, demonstrating devotion to the Catholic priests and laity executed there since 1535. When Parliament was not in session, Catholics were spared from persecution, fines, and martyrdom. When Parliament was in session, Catholics were in danger.

In 1641, Parliament was back in session because Charles I needed funds from taxation to fight the Catholic rebels in Ireland. Therefore he had to agree with Parliament to issue a proclamation banning all priests from England, giving them the opportunity to leave immediately under pain of death. Father William Ward refused to leave and stayed in London in the house of his nephew. A pursuivant (an official who hunted for priests) Thomas Mayhew, arrested him and took him to Newgate prison on July 15, 1641. He was tried in the Old Bailey Court and convicted of being a priest in England.


“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Receive My Soul”

After preparing spiritually for his execution, he was drawn on a sledge from Newgate to Tyburn, about a two mile journey through the streets of London. Father Ward prayed for Charles I and Henrietta Maria, their heirs and all of England. He was hanged until he was dead, and then the executioner stripped Father Ward’s body, “dragged him by the heels on his back to the fire, there dismembered and beheaded him, ripped up his belly, plucked out his heart and his bowels, and cast them into the fire” as Challoner’s source tells us. His last prayer was “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, receive my soul.” His head and quartered body were displayed “upon several gates and places of the city” as a warning to other priests.

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote in one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons ( “The Crucifixion” ), hoping to arouse feelings of love and sorrow in the hearts of his congregation reading the Gospel account of Jesus’s sufferings in His Passion:

Let us suppose that some aged and venerable person . . . [was] rudely seized by fierce men, stripped naked in public, insulted, . . . pulled and dragged about, and at last exposed with all his wounds to the gaze of a rude multitude who came and jeered him, what would be our feelings? Let us in our mind think of this person or that, and consider how we should be overwhelmed and pierced through and through by such a hideous occurrence.

Almost four hundred years after his execution, we can still be “overwhelmed” by the description of such “a hideous occurrence” as this elderly priest’s martyrdom. Pope Pius XI beatified William Ward among 162 Martyrs of England and Wales in 1929. Blessed William Ward, pray for us!

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